TALKING “THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY” WITH STAR WILL SWENSON

WILL SWENSON HASN’T TAKEN A BREAK IN YEARS.

After back-to-back runs in Broadway shows like Les MisérablesWaitress, and Disaster, off-Broadway shows like Little Miss SunshinePericles and Jerry Springer – The Opera, and films such as The Greatest Showman and the upcoming The Kitchen, the 44-year-old Tony Award nominee (Hair, 2009) is truly an unstoppable force.

Following his Berkshire Theatre Award win for Best Lead Actor in 2016’s The Pirates of Penzance, Swenson has returned to the Berkshires this summer to star in the world premiere production of the new musical, The Royal Family of Broadway. With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn (the acclaimed creative team behind The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee)The Royal Family has been playing to sold-out audiences and critical acclaim at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

I spoke with Swenson about The Royal Family, the difference between working on revivals versus brand new musicals, the role of art in today’s political climate, filming The Kitchen, and more.

The Royal Family of Broadway

ALEX NAGORSKI:What initially attracted you to The Royal Family of Broadway?

WILL SWENSON: A bunch of things! First and foremost, it’s just a great role. When I read it, I was like, “Oh, I could do a lot with this!” Plus, I’d seen the revival of the play it’s based on (The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber), so I was pretty familiar with the story. I knew it was a good play and I liked the part a ton. Then, of course, Bill Finn’s music is always spectacular. Getting the chance to work with him is great.

Also, John Rando is just one of the best directors in the business. I’d worked with him just recently and a few times prior. I think this is my fourth project with him. It was just a perfect storm of very appealing things to work with.

What are some of the ways that you find Tony to be a different type of character for you to play than the previous roles in your career thus far?

Hopefully, they’re all pretty different from one another. It does get frustrating as an actor sometimes when you get pigeonholed. People can be like, “Oh, he’s the guy that does this or that.” So I try to spread it around and play different people in diverse types of projects.

Tony is just a wacky, self-centered, full-of-life character. The Royal Family is a period piece so it has some high language and great songs. So just looking at something new to do was very appealing.

What does it mean for you to get to introduce this brand new music by William Finn, who wrote such contemporary classics as Falsettos, to the world through this show?

Well, my favorite kind of show to do is one that’s brand new. When you do revivals or shows that have been widely done, there’s often a preconceived idea of what the show should be or who the characters are. Even down to the moment, like, “This is when typically the actor does this because it’s the way it’s always been done.” Therefore, sometimes you can feel a little bit like a puppet and like you’re walking in somebody else’s shoes.

But doing something new is really thrilling because you’re creating it. It’s legitimate creation and you get to tread new ground and call the shots. Doing something new is just my favorite. In the rehearsal room, you’re discovering things for the very first time and going, “Oh, this works, this doesn’t work.” It’s just a lot more fun for me.

The Royal Family is set in the 1920s and is loosely based on the legendary Barrymore family. What was your creative process like discovering the world of this show?

I YouTubed a ton and read a bunch on the Barrymores – particularly John Barrymore, who it seems like my character is based on. He was this amazing, larger than life archetype of an actor – down to the drunkenness, the carousing, the heightened personality, and the arrogant speech on camera. So I watched as much footage as I could of interviews with John Barrymore, as well as a lot of his actual work. It was like a treasure trove of stuff to use. Some of the stuff I found in his movies was just like, “Oh, that’s going in the show!”

Also, Lionel Barrymore wrote a book about his family and his siblings, in which he told all kinds of wonderful stories. That was great stuff for the backstory and to understand what the family dynamic was. That’s kind of what I did to prepare for this role.

As far as the rehearsal room, it was much more fast and furious. We whipped the show up in only three weeks – which is a crazy, small amount of time to mount a new musical. That’d be a really quick amount of time to whip up a musical that’s well known and already written! We were cutting songs, adding songs, adding dialogue, rewriting stuff – it was just all in a super short amount of time.

The Royal Family of Broadway

You and your wife (6-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald) have a long history of performing in the Berkshires, including shows at places like Barrington Stage Company, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Tanglewood, to name a few. What is it about this area that keeps bringing you both back here?

It’s the combo of doing great art and the beauty of the area. There are so many amazing forums up here for performance. We love to go hike and kayak during the day and then work on some new and fun projects at night. We love to go hike up on Mount Greylock and over at Williamstown. I like to mountain bike up to Vermont. We go to various cafes and eat gigantic pancakes. We just love being up here in the summer.

While I’ve been up here, I’ve been going back and forth to New York to shoot a movie I just finished. I’ve missed a couple of shows but I’m done now. So because of this movie, my memory of this summer will be driving back and forth between Pittsfield and New York City.

What’s the movie?

It’s called The Kitchen and it’s starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss. It’s about the Irish Mob in the ’70s. I play an Italian hit man. It was pretty fun!

The Royal Family wraps up on July 7. What are the rest of your plans for this summer and where can your fans catch you next?

I’ve got a couple of concerts that I’m singing at in Provincetown at the end of July. My wife has a bunch of concerts too. I’m going to hit the road with her and watch our baby during that time. I have not spent nearly enough time with them during the run of The Royal Family because they couldn’t always come up here. So I’m going to be a dad, do a few concerts and then go be a roadie for my wife.

What are the plans for The Royal Family after the final curtain drops this weekend? And if it does indeed come to Broadway, do you plan to reprise your role?

If there are future plans for it, I definitely want to stay involved. There most likely will be. Because it’s a new show, I imagine there will probably be a workshop of some kind to try to nail down the things that we wanted to continue working on. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if someone wants to take it to Broadway!

This musical comedy is very much a feel-good show. In these horrifying times we’re living in, do you consider the role of an artist to be to entertain, educate and/or distract audiences?

Hopefully, it’s all of it. I’ve said before in interviews that I feel like history remembers civilizations for two things: their wars and their art. As an artist, that’s the beauty we leave behind in this world. Hopefully what we do makes people question their places in the world and question their decisions and thought processes.

Some art forms are much more escapist. Sometimes it’s nice to forget about the world and just go into a room and enjoy it and laugh for a couple of hours. Other times, it makes you ask yourself hard questions. Hopefully, we can do all of that with our storytelling, which I think is such a noble and a beautiful art form.

You recently tweeted that you “used to feel so inspired and lucky” whenever you saw the Statue of Liberty, but that now seeing it “just makes me feel sad and embarrassed.” As both a performer and a father, how do you hold onto hope in such a toxic political climate?

Man, it is tough. I’ll tell you what – a buddy of mine did a little blog on his website about why we shouldn’t lose hope. And he basically wrote that the reason is because there’s no other option. Because we’re alive. There’s a scary, murky end to all of us, and that’s death. But we get up each day and try to be good people and to try to make a difference because that’s just what you do. That’s part of life. There are challenges, setbacks, hard times and good times. But surrendering is just not an option.

We try – speaking for my wife and hopefully my kids as well – to make our lives as productive and positive as we can. We try to make a difference where we can. Hopefully, those ripples will travel far enough that it can make a difference and we can help make the world a better place.

That’s very inspiring. On a lighter topic, congratulations on your recent Obie Award win for Jerry Springer – The Opera! What were some of the highlights of playing Satan?

Thank you! It was so great on so many levels. I mean, I’d never played Satan before. He’s just such a terrific character. And to do it in such a bizarre setting with such a twist on how the character is portrayed in the context of The Jerry Springer Show was a total ball. And through the medium of opera! That just added an extra cool facet to the delivery of it. That show was directed by John Rando as well. It was just a ball! That was a great company and a really, really fun project.

You’ve played a lot of “bad guys” on Broadway, such as Earl in Waitress and Javert in Les Misérables. What type of creative itch does playing these types of villainous roles scratch versus playing the hero of a story?

Generally, I think they’re more complex. If I was given the choice to play the “bad guy” versus the “good guy,” I think I would generally choose the antagonist.  Playing somebody troubled is a lot more fun than playing somebody who has all of their stuff figured out. Discovering how the “bad guy” gets to that point and how they justify their actions or why they probably think they’re the “good guy” because they’ve lost track of their values or motives … I just like it a lot.

You mentioned that you’ll be doing some solo concerts soon. Do you have any plans to release any solo music?

Probably not but you never know. I just really love the theater. It’s not my number one passion to be like, “Will Swenson sings you this song.” I like hiding behind my characters a little more. But when things come up, I surely enjoy them and they’re a good way to take a vacation with my kids.

What are some of your musical theater dream roles and/or collaborators?

Well, as I mentioned, new stuff is really my favorite so I don’t have a huge, long list of “Oh, I want to play that” or “I want to play him.” What really turns me on the most is creating something new.

I suppose if there was one that comes to mind, it’d be Sweeney Todd. I’d like to do that one someday. Of course, Sondheim is someone that I would love to get to work with, but I haven’t been able to thus far. I’m a fan of so, so many great musical theater composers and am lucky enough to have been able to work with a lot of them.

As someone who has appeared everywhere from the stage to films to television, what do you feel is the most important thing that live theater can achieve for an audience that these other mediums do not?

Well, theater is my favorite performance medium. I enjoy working in TV and film as well, but there’s just that intangible thing in the room in a theater where we’re all connected. It’s this living kind of organism of storytelling that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s communal.

I was watching Oskar Eustis give this speech the other day and he said, “When you go to a movie theater and you walk in and you’re the only person there, you’re thrilled! You sit by yourself and you’re totally excited to be the only person in the movie theater. But if you walked into a stage performance and you’re the only person in the theater, or if there’s not a full house, your heart sinks because whether you know it or not, you’re going to have a communal experience.” You know?

The shows that are sold out, that are hard to get a ticket to, there’s something exciting about being one of those select few that get to see it. The fact that it’s so alive and it varies from night to night is just thrilling. Other acting art forms, like film and television, are wonderful and are accomplishing many other things – but they’re very set and they’re the same way forever once the project is finished. So there’s just that extra thing about theater that binds people together. It’s so beautifully communal. I just love it!


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to The Royal Family of Broadway, now playing through July 7 at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW: CHATTING WITH “RENAISSANCE” MAN CHEYENNE JACKSON

CHEYENNE JACKSON HAS FOUND HIS CALLING.

Cheyenne-Jackson-CD-Cover-RenaissanceThe 40-year-old Broadway veteran, best known for his originating roles in shows like Xanadu and All Shook Up, is returning to his musical roots. On his new album, Renaissance, Jackson masterfully channels the classic crooners, jazz artists, and rock-and-roll stars of the 1950s and 60s. Paying homage to the music he was raised on, he has put his own twist on the greatest hits of the era. With this record, Jackson has passionately revived the American songbook with his stunning range and signature, soulful baritone voice.

Taking a break from filming the upcoming sixth season of American Horror Story, Jackson chatted with me about his new album, returning to Broadway, his thoughts on this year’s Tony Awards, being gay in the entertainment industry, and more.

What does the album’s title, Renaissance, signify to you?

Funny, nobody’s asked me that! I’ve definitely gone through a renaissance, or a rebirth if you will, over the last 4 years. These songs in particular are ones that I’ve toured for a while now. Everything has kind of culminated in this group of songs that have meant so much to me. Plus, my music teachers always called me a “Renaissance man,” and I just liked the idea of doing something old but also something new.

The album is adapted and expanded from your tour, “Music of the Mad Men Era.” Why does music from this time period resonate with you and what made you decide to record your own album interpreting these classics?

Strangely, this is the music that I grew up listening to. I was a 12-year-old in rural Northern Idaho who listened to Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. For some reason, that’s the type of music that I was drawn to. I loved the feel of it. I loved the sound of it and it just seemed very natural to me.

As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve sung a lot of different things in a lot of different styles and genres, if I really get quiet and listen to what I like to do the best and what moves me the most, it’s this style of music. It’s the American songbook and it’s jazz in particular.

So for the last few years, touring this kind of music in clubs and in big performing arts centers just made sense. It made sense to want to record these songs. Most of them are ones I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of times. But because they’re such great, classic songs, as you get older and have more experience, the songs themselves morph and change and take on deeper meanings. That’s kind of how it all happened.

This era had so many incredible songs to choose from. How did you curate which ones were included on the record?

It was a really natural process. Like I said, having done a lot of these songs for years and years, I definitely don’t sing them the same as I did 4 years ago. I love that idea that it’s ever changing and morphing and that it can mean one thing one day and something else the next. When it came time to choose, I definitely wanted to pick songs that meant the most to me, and that would work within this linear story I’m trying to tell on the album.

All but one of the songs are ones that I’ve performed in concert before. “A Song For You” is the only one that’s a brand new song for me, but everything else is something I’ve done many, many times. I just tried to pick the best versions because some of these songs on the album are just maybe piano and drums, but in concert I do them with a full orchestra. And vice versa. So I really wanted to focus it.

In addition to all of the covers, the album also includes an original song that you wrote, “Red Wine Is Good For My Heart.” What’s the story behind that song? What inspired you to write it?

Thank you for asking because that is a very personal song to me. My grandma died a few years back due to complications from alcoholism. And, you know, I am an alcoholic and I’ve been sober for 3 years. It’s a huge part of my story. I wrote this song at my friend Michael Feinstein’s house a few years back and I was kind of struggling with the bridge. He came downstairs and I was like, “Sit down and write this song with me!” So we finished it up.

My grandma’s favorite thing to say was, “Well red wine is good for my heart!” She clung to that, but it was ultimately the thing that killed her. I also just wanted to honor her life and her relationship with her man of 30 years. It’s a deeply personal issue for me as well, so I wanted to mark that in some way.

Do you do you plan on going back on the road with another tour to celebrate the album?

Yes! Right now, I’m shooting season 6 of American Horror Story – which I don’t think they’ve announced yet so you may be getting an exclusive there. But yeah, once we’re done shooting this season, then I’m going to have some time to tour a bit. But right now we’re in the thick of it.

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Speaking of American Horror Story, what can you tease about this new season and/or about your character?

Literally zero! Wild horses couldn’t drag it out of me. We are absolutely sworn to secrecy.

What’s your favorite part about working with Lady Gaga? I know she’s coming back for the new season as well.

I would say my favorite thing is her passion. She’s one of those people that is so passionate about whatever it happens to be at that moment – whether she’s talking about jazz or if she’s talking about a film she loves. While we were shooting last season, she was obsessed with the documentary series, The Jinx. She was obsessed with Robert Durst and that whole story.

It’s just fun to be around somebody who is so committed to whatever they’re doing. So many people have so many things going on and so they become a little bit scattered. The thing about her is that she’s always all in. That’s cool to be around. It’s inspiring.

Vocally, how does singing the style of music on Renaissance differ from when you’re singing musical theater or the type of pop found on your previous solo album? And moving forward, do you plan to continue releasing records that are more along these lines?

I do and here’s why. I’ve really been searching my heart and my soul over the last several years because I just wanted to find my sound. What is it and what do I want to do? So if I really clear away everything else and just get quiet and listen to what it is that moves me, all I have to do is look back to what it was as a kid – and that’s this style of music. It’s the American songbook. It’s great melodies. It’s jazz.

I think for a long time, I resisted it, because maybe I thought it was a little bit nerdy. I just wanted to be a cool, edgy singer/songwriter. And honestly, even though I can write pop music and I’m pretty good at it, it’s not the thing that I’m supposed to be doing. What I know now is that this is the music that I’m meant to be singing. It’s the most natural fit. My voice has always been really old-fashioned. As a 15-year-old kid, my high school choir teacher was like, “What is happening with you with sound?” I had an old-fashioned, jazzy type sound. The phrasing, the intonation and the vibrato – all of it just naturally lent itself towards that. And I fought it for years! I wanted to be George Michael! I wanted to really try. Even though I can sing that stuff and I love it, if I really get honest, this is the stuff that I love more than anything else. And I guess I’m kind of coming out.

Honestly, I was talking to my husband about this last year when I was planning this album, and I was like, “I guess I have to just accept and come out with the fact that this is what I do.” It was kind of a breakthrough for me. It’s freeing actually.

You’re really establishing your artistic identity.

Yeah, exactly! And it only took me to 40. Whatever.

Recently, you reunited with your former co-star Kerry Butler to sing “Suddenly” from Xanadu (in full-costume!) as part of a charity benefit performance. If you could revisit and revive any character in your career, whom would you want to play again?

Good question! Well being able to do a little bit from Xanadu again was definitely towards the top of the list. That show was so important to me and to my career. As for who I’d like to revive? Danny from 30 Rock was a very fun character. He was so in-your-face clueless about life. I think it would be a fun thing to see what he’s doing now. And to see if he’s mastered saying the word, “about.”

The last time that you and I chatted, you mentioned that you wanted to make your New York stage return with an original musical as opposed to a revival. Do you still feel that way? And do you have any idea when your fans might be able to expect to see you on Broadway again?

I do still feel that way, for sure! More than ever, actually. Given the last two years on Broadway, and especially this last year, there’s just been so much incredible new material. I’ve got to say, when I saw Hamilton, I had heard so much about it and it was so hyped up. With something like that, you think, “There’s no fucking way this is going to live up to what people are saying.” And happily, it just exploded my expectations and exploded my brain. It shows what the power of musical theater can actually do. So yeah, more than ever I definitely want it to be something new. I have had a couple of offers to come back in the last couple of years for certain revivals, and it just hasn’t been the right fit. It has to be something that I just immediately say, “Yes!”

So yeah, I really don’t know. I don’t have anything on the immediate horizon. There are talks about some things that are a couple of years out. But I definitely try to come back every 6 months or so and do something. For example, doing The Secret Garden in concert at Lincoln Center recently was really fun.

That was incredible, by the way. I had such a great time at the show.

Thank you! I did too. For Ramin (Karimloo) and I, it was such a highlight. And Sierra (Boggess)! You know, I love Broadway and I totally do want to come back. It just has to be the right thing.

You just wrapped filming the movie adaptation of Hello Again alongside the likes of Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton. What was that process like and how do you think this film will stand out from other contemporary movie musicals?

Another good question! Honestly, I don’t know how it’s going to stack up. This is the first movie musical that I’ve done and it was challenging in that we sang live.

Oh wow!

Yeah! We had little inner-ear things and we were singing to just a piano track. So we’re doing the scenes and we’re actually literally doing the song in the moment live. Which was cool from an acting perspective, but it was definitely challenging. I don’t know how it’s going to come across. I think it’s going to be cool.

It’s very experimental in terms of the scope and it’s very sexy. I mean, that’s what the whole movie is about – each person’s sexual connection and then that person with the next person with the next person with the next person. I had a really good time. Audra and I both did things on camera that we’ve never done before! You’ll see when it comes out. But we definitely just had to kind of go, “Okay, are we doing this? All right lets do it! 1, 2, 3, Go for it!” But yeah, it was a really fun cast. Martha Plimpton is fabulous and really good people. I’m anxious to see it and to see how it all comes across.

As an out gay man in the industry, what were your thoughts on the recent controversial interview that The Real O’Neals star Noah Galvin gave to Vulture about the glass closet in Hollywood?

Listen, I mean, everybody has their own experiences. He’s clearly sorry about what he said and redacted it and has gotten in trouble. I think he probably just got a little excited and I don’t believe in judging.

First of all, I don’t believe in outing anybody. And when people do decide to come out, it’s nobody’s business how they do it. I’ve been out for a long time now and I’ve watched these guys come out younger and younger and it’s very cool. I actually just saw Colton Haynes a couple of days ago and we chatted about this. It’s a new world and the industry is changing, and I think it’s because of these new, younger actors. So we need to lift each other up. We need to support each other in however we choose to come out because we’re all together. We’re all on the same team. Tearing each other down and speaking ill of each other’s experiences is not going to help anybody. It’s not going to help the process. So I’m glad that Noah apologized and kind of took back what he said, because I thought it was really ill conceived.

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How do you plan on celebrating Pride this year?

Well, we just had Pride in LA. So we kind of bopped around a bit and then we went to my niece’s birthday party. Then, I’m singing for Pride in P-town on the 4th of July. I’m doing a big concert at Town Hall.

That’ll be fun!

Yeah! That’s always a very Pride-filled weekend.

What was your personal highlight from the Tony Awards this year? Were there any specific performances that really resonated with you?

Oh god, yes! Cynthia Erivo from The Color Purple. It was insane! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see The Color Purple on stage. I’ve seen her perform “I’m Here” a couple of different times on talk shows and such, but holy crap! Insanity. Just insanity.

I thought the Tony’s this year were the best they’ve been in a decade. They were so exciting and there were so many good live performances. I also really loved Carmen Cusack’s number from Bright Star. I thought that was really strong. And I loved Jessie Mueller in Waitress. That was really, really powerful. So were so many of my friends, like the She Loves Me cast. And obviously Hamilton.

But the thing that pops into my mind immediately is Cynthia Erivo. That’s just how you do it. In fact, I watched that performance about 10 times. As soon as it was done, I just kept rewinding it and rewinding it and rewinding it.

I get to a point sometimes where I think I’ve got it figured out. I’m like, “Okay, I know how to interpret a song. I know how to really sing it from my gut. I know how to make these words my own.” And then you watch something like that and you realize, “Holy shit! I have so far to go. There’s so much more I could do!” That’s what I love about watching my peers. You can’t help but watch something like that and think, “Man! How does that happen?”

Thank you so much, Cheyenne! Is there anything else that you want to talk about that we didn’t discuss?

I think that’s good. This was really great! Thank you so much.

Originally published on PopBytes

AUDRA MCDONALD & WILL SWENSON IN ‘A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN’ AT THE WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

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It’s been eight years since Audra McDonald and Will Swenson shared the stage.

After they met during the 2007 Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade, the pair got married and quickly became the Brangelina-level power couple of the theater world. Since then, Swenson has garnered a Tony nomination for his turn in the acclaimed 2009 revival of Hair, and landed starring roles in high-profile shows like Les Miserables and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. McDonald has gone on to cement her status as modern Broadway royalty – not only because her six Tony Awards make her the record holder for the most wins, but also because she’s the first person to win in every single acting category (most recently for her astounding transformation into the late Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill). In between making theater history, McDonald has taken center stage at Carnegie Hall, co-starred in Disney’s upcoming live action remake of Beauty and the Beast and the latest Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash. She also has begun gearing up for the original Broadway musical, Shuffle Along, alongside actors Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell, set to open in April 2016. So for a couple as busy and in demand as McDonald and Swenson, the idea of spending the summer working together was a no-brainer.

20188930090_55c39a0074_zNow playing at the revered Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, A Moon for the Misbegotten reunites McDonald and Swenson in a professional setting. During 110 in the Shade, Swanson was an understudy (for Bill Starbuck), and although he did go on opposite his future wife, they never rehearsed together. Moon marks the first time that the duo have collaborated on a piece of theater from the ground up, and getting to dive into writer Eugene O’Neill’s emotionally vast drama together has opened up an entirely new and rewarding chapter in their relationship.

“We’re getting to know each other in a completely different way,” McDonald explained to Broadway.com about working with her husband. “We’re learning who we are in the creative process. It’s a new experience to get to know someone you think you already know so well, but in a different light.”

“Because I’ve never really worked up a show with Audra I feel like I’m learning things about her that I had no idea about. We’ve been together for years and years. You think you know somebody pretty intimately but there’s this huge part of Audra that I haven’t ever really got to experience,” Swenson told The Huffington Post. “It’s been thrilling actually because … I say this not just because she’s my wife … but it’s been amazing. I feel like I’m learning something every day the way that she is this truth-seeking missile who will absolutely mine a moment within an inch of its life to find the truthfulness in it and the way that that has a ripple effect throughout the coming moments,” he continued. “I’m just learning a lot from working with her.”

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Written by Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten is a semi-sequel to the playwright’s seminal work, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which will be returning to Broadwaythis March with Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr.). In the play, Long Day’s Journey character Jamie Tyrone (Swenson) is older but as self-destructive and dissolute as ever. He’s the landlord of a Connecticut farm and is allegedly preparing to sell the property out from under its tenants, Phil Hogan (in a riveting performance by Glynn Turman) and his daughter, Josie (McDonald). When the Hogans become aware of Tyrone’s plans, they concoct a scheme for Josie to seduce Tyrone and blackmail him into selling the farm to them for the significantly lower price that he once promised them. But as Josie kicks their plan into action, she and Tyrone embark on a harrowing journey through the course of one night that exposes their innermost darkest truths, fragile desires, and haunting pasts. Will they achieve the redemption they seek by the time dawn comes? Or are these two souls too damaged to be repaired?

Ripe with meaty monologues and gritty character unraveling, the play provides for an incredible actor’s showcase for both McDonald and Swenson. Unsurprisingly, their chemistry is palpable, and both are excellent in their layered portrayals of these tortured individuals who somehow find temporary solace and peace in one another’s arms.

Staging the infamously dense O’Neill can often prove to be a tricky feat. So in a successful attempt to be more accessible and impactful for contemporary audiences, this production employs race as a way to underline the socio-economic differences between the Hogans and Tyrone. Set in 1923, the original play depicted the Hogans as Irish-Americans (O’Neill wrote that Josie had “the map of Ireland stamped on her face”). But in this new telling of the story, the Hogans are African-American and Tyrone is the lone Caucasian.

20350740266_642a7babbc_zIn the show’s program, director Gordon Edelstein elaborates on this redirected focus. “I have had a long relationship with A Moon for the Misbegotten and the work of Eugene O’Neill, and when [Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director] Mandy Greenfield and I began discussions about a way to present this work with revitalizing eyes, we began to explore the notion of making the Hogans African-American tenant farmers,” he divulges. “It is certainly true that a minor theme in the play is the relationship between representatives of two classes of Irish-Americans in early twentieth century America. Those distinctions are lost on contemporary audiences much like the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays is, for the most part, lost on us today. We hope the juxtaposition of whites and blacks in this production illuminates O’Neill’s themes of class and power with an even greater clarity. The music of the language can be heard anew, much like when you hear a refreshing new interpretation of a piece of music that you thought you knew—further proof of the fungibility of great theatrical art. Great plays are about human beings and it’s the human experience that is being portrayed here, always shifting depending on who is doing it and how it is being done.”

But what’s unchanged are how the characters grow and subsequently interact with one another. Josie starts off as a thick-skinned, no-nonsense, earthy woman who is unafraid to voice her opinion and assert her dominance over those who try to challenge her. As the show progresses, her walls are slowly taken down and we see the nurturing and compassionate person inside who simply yearns for earnest human connection and understanding. Similarly, Tyrone is introduced as a selfish, smug city boy whose priorities in the country don’t extend beyond alcohol, sex, and his own financial gain, no matter at whose expense. Yet as he too begins to shed the armor he’s initially presented with, Tyrone reveals himself to be a vulnerable, pained, and rather broken man. As a result, these two characters who at first seemed worlds apart, are able to relate to one another in a way that makes Moon a dark, captivating, and ultimately tragic love story.

Adding literal depth to the production is the evocative scenic design by the renowned Ming Cho Lee. Lee’s design calls for an open, melancholy sky that falls behind the Hogans’ farm in a rounded way that appears as though it stretches far beyond the theater’s walls. The farm is located atop a hill, and the hike that the actors must take when coming and going to and from the property lends a striking degree of realism that brilliantly plays off the sense of intimacy that the script demands. The breathtaking design almost suggests that with so much world around them left to explore, the Hogans and Tyrone have imprisoned themselves by clinging to this small piece of land and allowing it to dictate who they evolve into. It’s no wonder, then, that the play opens with Josie helping her brother (played by Howard W. Overshown) run away to make his own way in the world free from the confines of the farm.

So will Moon follow in the footsteps of other recent Williamstown Theatre Festival productions (like The Elephant Man and The Visit) and transfer to the Great White Way?

“These are notoriously difficult roles. I wouldn’t want to step out on Broadway to try Josie for the first time,” McDonald confessed to The Boston Globe. “It’s great to have a place up here [in the Berkshires] to start to crack it open. It’s a safe, fertile environment in which to take a big risk.”

And it’s a risk that more than pays off. With A Moon for the Misbegotten, McDonald and Swenson not only triumph in showing off their artistic versatility and seemingly limitless partnership, they also resurrect an American classic in a way that makes it feel exciting, fresh and poignant for today’s audiences.

Click here to buy your tickets for A Moon for the Misbegotten, now playing through August 23rd at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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Originally published on PopBytes

CONCERT REVIEW: AUDRA MCDONALD AT NYC’S CARNEGIE HALL

Audra McDonald doesn’t need to sing a single note to get a standing ovation.

Audra McDonaldCarnegie Hall04.29.2015The second she walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage for a one-night-only concert last Wednesday (04.29), she was greeted with the same type of rapturous applause typically reserved for the end of an evening of phenomenal performances. This entrance alone was a testament to the star she has become: a living legend whose accolades not only are unprecedented, but one who is the envy of any aspiring Broadway actor.

McDonald, 44, is the recipient of two Grammy Awards and a record six Tony Awards. She’s also the first—and only—person to have won Tonys in all four acting categories. Most recently, she took home the prestigious award for her jaw-dropping transformation into Billie Holiday in last year’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (which I reviewed here). But for her solo show, unofficially titled “Songs from My Living Room,” McDonald wasn’t trying to be anyone but herself.

Having curated a set list that consisted of everything from musical theater standards to contemporary compositions and lesser-known favorites, McDonald tied her song selections together by recounting how she grew up in Fresno, California, dreaming of one day becoming a Broadway performer. Citing idols and influences like Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, and Judy Garland, she took her audience on a deeply personal journey through some of the songs that have inspired, impacted, and shaped her illustrious career thus far.

Accompanied by her music director Andy Einhorn on the piano, McDonald opened her show with “Sing Happy,” the first of four Kander & Ebb pieces she performed. A celebration of the uplifting power that music can have, this song perfectly introduced the theme of singing as an emotional outlet, something that McDonald would continue to underline in various ways throughout the night. Her other Kander & Ebb selections included “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink, and an interpretation of Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time” so heartfelt that it would make you want to start a petition for her to play Sally Bowles.

But of all the Kander & Ebb she chose, it was McDonald’s rendition of “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys that packed the hardest punch. Before singing the song, she talked about how once in between Lady Day performances, she walked over to Covenant House (a charity benefiting homeless children in New York) to make a donation. While she waited there, a teenage boy with only a trash bag full of belongings walked in, unsure of what to expect. She watched as the same workers who only moments prior had joked around and flirted with her went into superhero mode and welcomed the boy, offering him food, shelter and, above all, a sense of safety and belonging.

McDonald was so overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing this that she is now is a member of the Covenant House board. She dedicated the hopeful and gorgeous “Go Back Home” to the children (or “my kids” as she now calls them) the organization helps – including those who were in attendance at the concert.

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As much as she loves classics and revivals, McDonald emphasized how important it is for musical theater to continue to evolve and remain current. Thus, she spotlighted the music of some very recent and rising composers who have particularly resonated with her.

These songs included “No One Else,” a haunting ballad from Dave Malloy’s War and Peace-inspired 2012 electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and a children’s lullaby by Shaina Taub called “The Tale of Bear and Otter,” which was divided into chapters to feel like a real bedtime story. The true standout of this newer material, however, was Kate Miller-Heidke’s “The Facebook Song,” a breakup song that McDonald believed to perfectly encapsulate “heartbreak in the 21st century” and that allowed her to dare to drop a number of F-bombs in Carnegie Hall.

But McDonald didn’t only pay tribute to up-and-coming composers. The crowd went wild at the end of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Mister Snow,” the Carousel staple that produced her first Tony win back in 1994. She slowed things down for Kurt Weill’s “It Never Was You” and picked them up for a revamped version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love” that featured a new hilarious verse (with additional lyrics by Larry Dachslager) about all things Audra – including her undying love for Chipotle, manipulating her voice to sound like Billie Holiday, and advocating for marriage equality.

And speaking of custom-written lyrics, McDonald called upon the prolific Stephen Schwartz (who also was in attendance) to tweak “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife, making the song from Genevieve’s rather than Dominique’s perspective. This revised version of the song showcased McDonald’s stunning lyric soprano voice in ways that were nothing short of triumphant.

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Before going into “How Could I Ever Know” from The Secret Garden, McDonald took a moment to reflect on a very difficult chapter in her life. She spoke about how, when she was still a student at Juilliard, she survived a suicide attempt. Not long after, she booked her first Broadway role as Ayah in The Secret Garden, and she officially transitioned from focusing on opera to musical theater. While “How Could I Ever Know” was never a song she sang in the show (it’s performed by characters Lily and Archibald), it was one that she would listen to from the sidelines. It helped her find a new purpose in life and emerge from the darkness she felt in her past.

When it came time for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” McDonald applauded NBC for resurrecting the lost and incredibly difficult art of putting on live televised musicals. She told the audience that she never expected she’d be cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and was so grateful to the network for giving her the chance to play such an iconic role.

She joked that she liked to tell people that she was “from the really sunny side of the Alps.” She also told an amusing story about how her nerves were calmed about performing for so many millions of people live when she received a text message from her daughter asking a question about the laundry moments before stepping in front of the camera. And just as it sounded during that telecast, her rendition was a true show-stopping tour de force.

Other highlights throughout the evening included the Depression-era “My Buddy,” which McDonald sang in honor of a World War II veteran she heard singing the song outside of (you guessed it) a Chipotle while she was in Cambridge, Massachusetts working on Porgy and Bess; and “Rainbow High” from Evita, which she performed for the first time since starring in the show as Eva Peron at age 16 back in Fresno.

She also sang “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi because the song’s lyrics about finding fulfillment through bringing joy to someone else falls in line with some of the best advice she’s ever received; paid homage to Betty Buckley with The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s “The Writing on the Wall;” and impressively showed off just how high she can sing with “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me.

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McDonald wrapped up her encore with a sensational take on “Over the Rainbow.” Before she started to sing it, she spoke to the audience about how original singer Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969 helped inspire the Stonewall riots. That turned into a brief discussion about why she’s such a vocal champion for marriage equality. She talked about how, as an African-American, there are so many experiences she’s had that she wouldn’t have been able to have had she been born earlier. And that it was thanks to the civil rights leaders who stepped up to fight for what was right that she’s been given the chance to accomplish all that she has. Why then, she asked rhetorically, would she not support another part of the population who was being discriminated against?

Listening to McDonald speak about this, especially knowing that hearings on this topic were taking place in the Supreme Court at that exact time, the audience knew they were witnessing a truly monumental moment. Naturally, then, her “Over The Rainbow” shined with new meaning and beautiful encouragement.

McDonald will next be seen in the Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash, and the upcoming HBO special presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. There was a lot of speculation about what her next Broadway foray would be. Would it be in a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother, opposite Oprah Winfrey in her Great White Way debut? Or a revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman alongside Alan Cumming? Or a new musical adaptation of the film Corinna, Corinna written for her by composer Alan Menken?

As it turns out, McDonald’s next project will be Shuffle Along, a new musical (set to open in 2016) that explores the origin of the nearly forgotten 1921 all-black musical of the same name. Helming the show alongside director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, McDonald may need to begin preparing room on her shelf for a seventh Tony Award.

After all, if her concert at Carnegie Hall was any indication, hers is a voice we’ll all be clamoring to hear for years and years to come.

Originally published on PopBytes

DON’T MISS AUDRA MCDONALD IN “LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL”

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the slightest bit skeptical when I heard that Audra McDonald had been cast as Billie Holiday in the Broadway premiere of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.

While the five-time Tony Award winner is unarguably a living stage legend and colossal talent, McDonald is a Juilliard-trained soprano whose many opera credits made me wonder if she could reel her enormous voice in to pull off the husky and distinct sound of Lady Day. Surely, the same person whose chill-inducing rendition of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess made all previous interpretations of that classic song sound inferior, and whose “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” had musical theater fans everywhere clamoring for a Mother Abbess Live! spinoff, couldn’t also match the velvety and fragile nuances that made up Holiday’s iconic voice.

But the second that McDonald stepped on the stage and started singing the opening notes of “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” any and all doubts turned into open-jawed awe. Not only did she sound exactly like the late jazz singer, but her deeply passionate delivery allowed for Holiday’s soul to shine through McDonald’s performance, almost as if she was channeling her from the grave.

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“My grandmother had a speaking voice very similar to Billie Holiday’s speaking voice and I used to imitate my grandmother,” McDonald recently told BET.com while explaining how she perfected her uncanny impression. “So I’ve been using that as my jumping off point – Nana’s voice – and that sort of helped me find it. I just start like I’m imitating my grandmother and then I go to Billie Holiday from there.”

Set in a small bar in South Philadelphia in March of 1959, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill takes place just four months before the 44-year-old Holiday died of cirrhosis and heart failure. The play alternates between performances of some of Holiday’s most revered songs – like “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “Foolin’ Myself” – and autobiographical monologues that paint a heartbreaking, astounding portrait of a woman, who even past her prime, was one of the most gifted and influential musicians of the twentieth century.

Playwright Lanie Robertson was inspired to write the show after a former boyfriend of hers saw one of Holiday’s final performances at a Philadelphia dive bar. “He said she stumbled in obviously ‘quite high,’ carrying her little Chihuahua Pepi, whom she introduced to her audience. A water glass was kept filled with booze atop the piano for her. She and a piano player performed ten or 12 of her songs for an audience of seven patrons. Then, he said, she staggered out,” Robertson wrote in the show’s Playbill. “That image of the world’s greatest jazz singer being so undervalued at the end of her life and career was an image that has always haunted me. Writing Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill was an attempt to rid myself of that ghost.”

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

Similarly to how the current Broadway revival of Cabaret turned theater venue Studio 54 into the Kit Kat Klub, the Circle in the Square Theatre transformed itself into Emerson’s Bar & Grill for the limited duration of Lady Day. Upon entering, audience members immediately get the sense that they’re at a jazz nightclub rather than at a Broadway theater. The floor is covered with little bar tables, from which ticketholders are able to order drinks from the wait staff, and atop a small bandstand is a trio of musicians (including the incredible Shelton Becton on piano) who accompany McDonald when she steps behind her standing microphone.

This intimate staging allows for McDonald to frequently interact with her audience – whether it’s to help her down from the tiny stage so she can refill her glass of gin or simply to light her cigarette. And when she ultimately drinks so much that she falls over, theatergoers sitting close enough can’t help but extend their arms to try to help her up.

Throughout her tumultuous life, Holiday struggled greatly with alcohol and heroin. Wearing elbow-length white gloves to cover her track marks, McDonald’s Holiday drinks consistently throughout the show. As she becomes less and less lucid, she finds it increasingly difficult to connect to her music, often times starting to sing songs that she decides not to finish. After all, Holiday prided herself on performing the songs that she was feeling, not just the ones that her fans wanted to hear. To her, it was more important to have a song find her than to try to force a dishonest emotion while performing.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

It’s that unwavering dedication to her craft that McDonald captures so spectacularly. When she sings “God Bless the Child,” a song Holiday wrote about her mother, it’s impossible not to feel the rawness and vulnerability behind the beloved lyrics. And when she sings the harrowing “Strange Fruit,” a protest song about racial violence in the South, the sorrow and sense of urgency that McDonald evokes is sure to knock the wind out of those listening.

This groundbreaking character exploration propels the show into a true performance of a lifetime for McDonald – which is saying a lot considering she’s already received so many accolades. In fact, McDonald received her eighth Tony Award nomination for this role. If she takes home her sixth statue come the ceremony on June 8th, not only will she have won for every possible performance category, but she’ll also be the recipient of more Tonys than any other actor in Broadway history. It’s no wonder, then, that The New Yorker called her work in Lady Day, “one of the greatest performances I ever hope to see.”

While the show certainly doesn’t shy away from addressing the darker aspects of Holiday’s life (being raped at 10, racism, failed marriages, and, obviously, addiction), it still manages to act as a beautiful tribute to the jazz star. It portrays Holiday as a deeply emotive individual who harnessed her experiences through her art, but was ultimately not able to protect herself from the reality of her world – the same tragic fate that would later await musicians like Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse.

At one point during Lady Day, McDonald says that the DJs on the radio have started to refer to Holiday as “Lady Yesterday” due to her fading star power. Yet in the show’s final moments, the spotlight zeroes in on just McDonald’s face, who continues to sing her heart out, but without any sound. All that’s left in the silence is a moving homage to a woman whose greatest love was her music. With that, her legacy is honored in a way that’ll leave her immortalized in the hearts of every audience member lucky enough to snag a ticket.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

This strictly limited engagement of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York through August 10th—get tickets here

Originally published on PopBytes